What’s Been Missing from Obama’s Response to the Arrest of Henry Louis Gates

having-a-beerWhen the presidential election campaign began two and a half years ago I was a Hillary Clinton supporter. I supported Clinton not so much because she was a woman or that I believed she was the best candidate. I supported her because I believed the hype that she had the democratic nomination in the bag.

I always believed The United States of America would have a white female president before it had a Black male president (a Black female president may have to wait until the next century) and so I didn’t want to waste my vote. But there was another reason I initially supported Clinton over Obama which goes to the heart of my essay and can be summed up in two words: race matters.

My reluctance to support Obama stemmed from what I believed was the Senator’s reluctance to honestly confront issues of race.

I was as excited as many about Obama after witnessing his stirring keynote address at the 2004 DNC convention. I believed a run for the presidency might not be a far-fetched idea. But I later became disillusioned during the Katrina crisis as Obama, in an effort to diffuse racial tensions, stated that the shortcomings in response to that horrific event were a matter of class. Race had nothing to do with it.

I believed Obama’s response to be cowardly and dishonest. Anyone who knows the history of New Orleans knows that race cannot be separated from the events before and after Katrina. It was astonishing to watch a Black politician engage in such blatant denial for his own political gain.

Black candidates and elected officials seeking state and national office know they must scale the racial mountain to assure their white constituents that they are not in it to advance the “Black cause.” In doing so, Black politicians all too often campaign or govern at the expense of their black constituents, downplaying racially charged issues so as not to offend whites.

But Obama well knows that race and class are not mutually exclusive and are often intersecting factors. Racial inequality is real and often has life and death consequences as we witnessed during and after Katrina.

For those of us at the bottom of the racial food chain, achieving racial equality is just as important as health care, the economy, and education as race determines access and quality of access.

Obama’s willingness to obscure these complexities in the midst of such human suffering gave me pause. I honestly did not think I could support a candidate who, to use the words of Kanye West, “doesn’t care about Black people.” Despite my misgivings, however, I eventually came around when some of my colleagues, namely a white middle aged female friend, urged me to listen to Obama’s stump speeches. After listening to both Clinton and Obama, I was convinced that Obama was the better candidate. By December 2007 I was well on my way to becoming an Obama supporter and took the full leap, as many others did, after the Iowa Caucus.

While Obama tried his best throughout the primary election to appear race neutral, fanning the flames of unrest whenever racial animosities attempted to hijack his campaign, the Jeremiah Wright controversy brought race front and center. Hence, Obama was faced with having to do something he had long tried to avoid: address the issue of race head on.

Like many Obama supporters, I was nervous about what he would say in the “race” speech he reluctantly delivered in Philadelphia on March 18, 2008 . Not only was I nervous because of what this could mean to him politically, I was also nervous because of what this could mean for Blacks all over the country.

In addition to his Katrina comments, I had read Obama’s The Audacity of Hope (2006) and frankly was unimpressed with his chapter on race. While he addresses issues of institutional and structural racism, unfortunately, the chapter quickly descends into a discourse on so called Black pathology. His memoir Dreams From My Father (1995) dealt far more honestly with the issue of race. But that was written before he became a politician. And so I sat nervously in front of the TV waiting for the speech. Would Obama yield to the status quo and simply say what was necessary to appease white anxieties? Or would he truly give voice to the reality of continued racial inequality in America? The speech was indeed as anchor Chris Matthews stated, “brilliant . . . one worthy of Lincoln.” Obama, nevertheless, managed to let whiteness off the hook by, in the words of novelist Adam Mansback, “ fudg[ing] the difference between institutional racism and white bitterness.” Despite this shortcoming, I felt Obama had done what was necessary to keep his campaign afloat while at the same time not throwing Blacks under the bus.

My disillusionment with Obama would return again as his visits to various Black churches during the general election yielded didactic speeches of personal responsibility, a message many felt condescending and only designed to garner white votes (i.e. the controversial Father’s Day speech). As appalled as I was at Rev. Jesse Jackson’s remarks that such condescension made him want “to cut his [Obama’s] nuts off,” I could identify with Rev. Jackson’s frustration. Why is it that Obama and others resort to scolding Black parents for not doing their part to insure their children’s success, but never acknowledge that there are Black parents who are actively engaged in their children’s lives? Yes, there are fathers who need to “step up,” but what about acknowledging those who have indeed steeped up and are taking care of their parental responsibilities? Such people are not an exception, but rather the rule in Black communities all over the country. cont’d on page 2

Published by the LA Progressive on July 30, 2009
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